HC Deb 21 June 1951 vol 489 cc834-40

9.58 p.m.

Sir Richard Acland (Gravesend)

I beg to move, That the Ecclesiastical Dilapidations Measures, 1923 to 1929 (Amendment) Measure, 1951, passed by the National Assembly of the Church of England, be presented to His Majesty for His Royal Assent in the form in which the said Measure was laid before Parliament. I hope that the ovation with which I am greeted indicates that the House will pass without argument or Division the three ecclesiastical Measures which it is my duty to move. I think the House as a whole would wish me to save time by dealing with them briefly. The first is the Ecclesiastical Dilapidations Measure, 1951. The object of this Measure is to extend certain modifications of the earlier Measure which were found to be convenient during war-time. We have had five years' experience of their working.

I do not think anybody has suffered by the modifications then introduced. The modifications extend what was a five-year period for assessment into a seven-year period and allow repairs to be authorised on the authority of the Diocesan Dilapidations Boards without requiring the diocesan surveyor to make an assessment after modest repairs. I hope the House will feel that this Measure which the Church Assembly has passed unanimously can be accepted by it.

Captain John Crowder (Finchley)

I beg to second the Motion.

Question put, and agreed to.

10.0 p.m.

Sir R. Acland

I beg to move: That the Cathedrals (Appointed Commissions) Measure, 1951, passed by the National Assembly of the Church of England, be presented to His Majesty for His Royal Assent in the form in which the said Measure was laid before Parliament. This removes a doubt which exists at the moment. The Cathedrals Measure, 1931, appointed a Commission to clarify the constitution of the chapters of many cathedrals, and that Commission was appointed for 12 years. There was power to appoint thereafter ad hoc commissions to deal with cathedral problems as and when they might arise. The original Measure made it perfectly clear that the original Commission, established for 12 years, should have its expenses paid by the Church Commissioners. It is not clear whether subsequent ad hoc commissions can also have their expenses paid in the same way. This Measure is intended to make it clear that the expenses of these ad hoc commissions can also be paid by the Church Commissioners. I hope the House will think this is a reasonable Measure.

Captain J. Crowder

I beg to second the Motion.

Earl Winterton (Horsham)

I was unable clearly to follow what the hon. Member for Gravesend (Sir R. Acland) said. It was a little difficult to hear him. I want to ask him one question as I am interested in an organisation describing itself as the Friends of Chichester Cathedral which has raised a large sum of money for that cathedral. I believe there are similar bodies throughout England. May I take it that this Measure in no way affects the position of such voluntary bodies?

Sir R. Acland

I think that is so. I do not think a voluntary body would be affected in any way. If a commission were appointed to investigate the constitution of the chapter their expenses could be paid by the Church Commissioners, but I do not think a voluntary body would be affected.

Question put, and agreed to.

10.3 p.m.

Sir R. Acland

I beg to move, That the Benefices (Stabilization of Incomes) Measure, 1951, passed by the National Assembly of the Church of England, be presented to His Majesty for His Royal Assent in the form in which the said Measure was laid before Parliament. The third Measure is perhaps a little more significant. Part of the income payable to the benefices by the Church Commissioners is fixed and depends not upon specific investments but upon the security of the Commissioners' general fund as a whole. There are, however, some £38,500,000 worth of Government and other securities which are held at the risk of some 10,500 individual benefices.

The income of each benefice depends upon the income yielded by the stock which is held in relation to that particular benefice. Those individual benefices are, therefore, subject to the risk that the particular stock concerned may at some future time be redeemed and a stock with a lower interest rate substituted, as a result of which the individual benefice would lose. Moreover, some 2,000 benefices at present receive annuities under the Tithe Act, 1918, and they will lose £30,000 per annum for certain when the annuities terminate, as they will between 1970 and 1977.

The purpose of this Measure is to bring the general fund of the Church Commissioners to the aid of the particular benefices which are liable to this risk. In effect, the risk is to be taken over by the general fund. The Measure provides for stabilisation orders to be made by the Commissioners under which the annuities and securities will be transferred to the Commissioners' general fund and the benefices concerned will be credited with the value of these securities as a money capital and will receive income from the general fund in perpetuity equal to the existing income from the annuities and securities.

Every benefice to which this Measure applies will therefore receive henceforth the income which it is receiving now, and if in future the particular securities concerned should be redeemed, or securities of a lower interest rate should be substituted for them, that loss, that burden, will fall upon the much broader shoulders of the general fund of the Church Commissioners, and the Church Commissioners will continue to pay to the particular benefice the same income that it is now receiving. Therefore, no benefice will lose and many benefices, as time goes on, will be in a better position than they would have been if each one had retained its separate dependence on a separate parcel of stocks and securities.

I must not disguise from the House the remote possibility that some of the stocks which are held by individual benefices may—it is conceivable that they may— appreciate in capital value. Then it is perfectly true that the benefice concerned would not reap that adventitious advantage; but, taking the thing by and large, we can say that no benefice is going to be worse off than at present and that most of the benefices are going to be considerably better off than they would be in the course of the next 5, 10 or 20 years if the stocks were redeemed, or lower interest bearing stocks were substituted.

I hope that the House will feel that the Church Assembly, at the instance of the Church Commissioners, has made wise provision in this Measure for safeguarding the future well being of the benefices concerned.

10.8 p.m.

Mr. Brendan Bracken (Bournemouth, East, and Christchurch)

I should like, for a start, to tell the hon. Member for Gravesend (Sir R. Acland) that there is no party controversy in this matter. We all know the appalling problems created by clerical poverty, and we all know that the children of parsons—

Mr. Speaker

First the Motion must be seconded, and then the right hon. Gentleman can continue with these observations.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Wolverhampton, South-West)

I beg to second the Motion moved by the hon. Baronet the Member for Gravesend (Sir R. Acland), although I cannot rival the splendour of his appearance. As he rightly said, this Motion is of considerably wider importance than the last two to which the House has given its assent. Upon the Tightness or wrong-ness of the Measure now being presented to this House will depend the welfare of many thousands of parish priests over the coming years, and it is, therefore, only right that this House before assenting to this Motion should satisfy itself of the Tightness of the Church Assembly's decision to consolidate the income from these trust funds at its present level.

It might appear that the early years of our emergence from the Daltonian era of low interest rates were the worst possible time thinkable in which to consolidate these returns at their present level. After all, we experienced in the years 1931 to 1946 an almost continuous fall in interest rates. That uniform trend has now started to be reversed, and the question may naturally arise in the mind of hon. Members whether it is not very unwise to choose just this opportunity for fixing in perpetuity the income of the benefices concerned from these funds.

I must confess that when I first read this Measure I had the same doubts. I therefore took an expert stock exchange opinion upon the transaction to which it is suggested by this Motion the House should assent. I should like to give to the House, very briefly, the reasons why, in that opinion, which is one which carries great weight, the present time is the right one and not the wrong one.

In the first place, with the present tendency for interest rates to rise, it will be a very long time before they influence redemption and re-investment of the sort of securities with which we are dealing. I will quote one sentence from that opinion: This would take many years, however, since borrowers will tend to let the issue? run to final maturity and shorts may be replaced by new shorts which can at present be issued at very low rates. On the other hand, should interest rates turn downward again, the borrowers will still get the advantage, because they will take that opportunity to redeem. Thus the fact that this is the first occasion when interest rates are tending to rise, is no reason why we should regard it as an unfavourable time for consolidating.

There is, however, a more general consideration in regard to consolidation and that will apply in general whatever may be the temporary variations in interest rate. It is this: The borrower is in a position to select a period of low interest rates as the time for effecting conversions, especially for stocks without final dates. As is the case with so many of these stocks. On the other hand, the holder can do nothing except sit tight on his investments and hope that they will not be redeemed, or alternatively switch into other investments where the first optional date is further ahead, but in doing so he would almost certainly lose income. I feel, therefore, that the House upon further consideration is justified in coming to the conclusion that the measure which the Church assembly has passed and has sent to us is one which is almost certain in the long run and on balance to confer a great benefit upon benefices concerned, and that it is one to which this House should ask for assent.

10.12 p.m.

Mr. Bracken

I cannot agree with the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell). To suggest that at the present time the holding of long-term Government securities is a wise matter is to my mind silly. We are living in art age of inflation. I should be the last to suggest that this House should interfere with the decision of the Church Assembly, because I do not think that we should carry our so-called legal powers so far, but I think that the danger to the Church of England caused by inflation is so great that it is about time that someone said, from this side of the House, that the Archbishops and members of the Church Assembly should take notice of what is happening.

As 1 see it, the clergy, who are living in great poverty, may now be completely ruined by holding long-term Government securities. I would not take the advice of an anonymous stockbroker. In my judgment this is a matter affecting the whole nation. We do not want to interfere with the Church Assembly, but I cannot consider anything more unfortunate than that clerical poverty should be deepened by the unwisdom of legislation approved by this House. I would beg the hon. Member for Gravesend (Sir R. Acland) to take much better financial advice in this matter.

1 hold that the Church endowments which were based on land and were in those days a fairly safe endowment are today based on Government securities. I once, four years ago, told the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Dalton), the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, that before he finished he would turn Government securities and the pound sterling into confetti. The risk is greater than ever now. There is no division on either side of the House on this question, but I beg the hon. Baronet to consider the matter.

I do not think that the Church should hold Government securities at present. They should get into something that gives them protection. I advise them to study the investment policy of Harvard University which enables some protection to be given to great institutions, whether they be churches or colleges, against inflation. I hope that the hon. Baronet will get some wise financial advice before he comes along so glibly and eloquently— and so decoratively tonight—to tell us that it is a good thing that the Church should hold long-term Government securities. It is not. It may ruin some of the clergy who are underpaid, who have done so much for this country and to whose children we owe so much. There is a good deal of sentiment in the Church Assembly, but there is no hardbitten financial advice available.

Sir R. Acland

I have listened with great interest to the advice of the right hon. Gentleman. I have no doubt that the men who advise the Church Commissioners would be grateful for any counsel that he can give them. But the question involved in this Measure does not raise so grave a principle as whether the Church Commissioners should hold Government securities at all. It is simply a question of whether Government and other securities which may be redeemed at any time should be held at the risk of certain individual benefices or on the general fund and the individual benefices protected against possible fluctuation. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will feel that this Measure is a wise one.

Question put, and agreed to.